Open University prepares students for the business-focused reality of IT

The stereotypical view of an IT worker separated from their organisation in a windowless basement is increasingly far removed from the reality of the role, writes Kevin Streater, executive director for IT employer engagement at The Open University.

IT professionals are a key strategic component of an organisation, engaged in all business decisions. This change in focus has led to demand for a new set of skills for those entering the career - one that includes an appreciation of business issues. Worryingly, this is exactly what employers feel is lacking from current IT graduates.

While employers are happy with the technical knowledge of graduates, they are disappointed by their ability to put these skills to use in the workplace, according to The Open University's recent "Developing professionalism in new IT graduate - who needs it?" report. It found that 43% of employers are concerned by how little knowledge applicants have about business operations.

This distance between employer needs and education provision is a major reason why computer science graduates are the largest group of unemployed graduates in the UK, and contributes to the rising trend of UK employers outsourcing their IT services abroad. As jobs disappear, the prospects for IT graduates get bleaker and prospective students are turned away, while the industry continues to suffer, stuck in a negative spiral of decline.

IT, business and education

To put IT back on the right path we must increase the business relevance of our IT education system and raise workplace experience and commercial awareness within our recruitment pool. For IT educators to achieve this requires a two-pronged approach.

Firstly we must ensure that young, inexperienced students are given the commercial nous that will help them quickly get up to speed and contribute in the workplace. From June, The Open University's new joint honours degree will allow students to combine their IT studies with a complementary subject in business, design, mathematics, psychology or statistics. By also adding new work-based learning modules, offering specialised pathways to particular IT roles and including the latest supplier certifications, we are working to ensure our graduates have the mix of technical skills and office experience employers want.

Secondly we need to throw open the doors to outsiders. If there is not enough business acumen within our IT departments and IT graduates, it certainly exists elsewhere within the wider workforce. We must therefore make it easier for people switching careers, with self-taught IT skills and an appreciation of how businesses work, to acquire the qualifications to make the jump across to IT.

The Open University undergraduate programme provides credit for previous work experience and offer work placement-based assessment, allowing students to earn while they learn. This makes a move into IT a more attractive proposition and many will be fast-tracked through a degree that could open up their career options.

Prepare IT students for the workplace

By ignoring business awareness, IT educators are failing to prepare students for the move into the job market and continuing a downward trend in which an industry once viewed as a major player in the UK economy is now facing serious decline. We must give our students the work-based skills and qualifications they need to succeed while opening up the profession to experienced new recruits from other sectors.

Kevin Streater is the executive director for IT employer engagement at The Open University. Registrations for the BSc (Honours) in Computing and IT and the BSc (Honours) Computing and IT & a second subject open on 10 June 2011.

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